China, America, and Pacific Asia

China, America, and Pacific Asia
Remarks to a Panel of the East-West Center

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
By video 22 January 2024

It’s an honor to have been invited to join a panel to discuss Recentering Pacific Asia: Regional China and World OrderBrantly Womack has composed and organized a remarkably insightful guide to the changes and continuities in what he persuasively calls “Pacific Asia” – meaning Northeast Asia, China, and Southeast Asia – where regional interactions promise to determine much of an emerging new world order.

In writing and editing this book, Brantly has provided a quintessentially strategic perspective.  His analysis is an invaluable offset to the fractally splintered and overspecialized scholarship, passionate parochialism, and tactical focus of almost all contemporary American commentary on international affairs.  His book is enriched by his having invited some of Pacific Asia’s premier minds to comment on his analysis.  I apologize to them.  Time limits will not permit me to respond to their very stimulating commentaries.  I must concentrate on Brantly’s core arguments.

I agree with Brantly that we are in what others have called a Zeitenwende or Wendepunkt in history – a moment in which old epochs pass and a new still-to-be-defined era is born.  The return of China to wealth and power and its shifting interactions with others in its region are a principal driver of this transformation.

  • For five centuries, the Euro-Atlantic region and Western values dominated the globe and its affairs. This dominance began with the European conquest of the Americas and was consolidated by the industrial revolution and overwhelming Western military superiority.  It is over.
  • The global balance of power is rapidly shifting to the civilizations and nations of the so-called “global South.” Their politics to one degree or another reflect a shared obsession with humiliation by foreign imperialisms – Euro-Atlantic, Russian, and Japanese.
  • Pacific Asia – rather than the Atlantic world – is now increasingly the center of gravity of the global economy and technological innovation, and
  • China is once again at the center of Pacific Asia. For the first time in history, China is not just a Pacific-Asian but a world power – one whose interests must be acknowledged and addressed in the management of every human domain and activity.

But, as Brantly recognizes, Pacific Asia is much more than a Chinese domain.  Elsewhere, I have argued that, in strategic terms, it has been and remains in large measure a “three-body problem” and that it is an anachronistic mistake to view it in terms of a bipolar contest between Chinese and American hegemony.[i]  There are more than two actors with agency in the region.

In physics and orbital mechanics, a three-body (or n-body) problem describes the difficulty of charting the patterns and predicting trajectories created by the interaction between competing gravitational centers, each of which is in motion.  In Pacific Asia, the three centers of gravity were historically China, the Northeast Asian nations of Japan and Korea, and the great sea empires of Southeast Asia – Srivijaya and Chola – which linked South India with what are now Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Of these, China always had the greatest mass, but the others had their own independent political systems and cultural identities and projected their own fields of influence. The interactions between these three bodies politic and their effects on those in the spaces between them wrote the geopolitical history of the region.

Brantly and the distinguished Asian scholars he invited to comment on his theses each have their own interpretations of the pre-Western order in Pacific Asia and the ways in which the current resurgence of its component states is reconfiguring both regional dynamics and interactions with other regions and the world at large.  But I see more agreement than dissension among us.

Of course, China is not just part of Pacific Asia.  To the great distress of India, China’s incorporation of Tibet makes it also inextricably part of South Asia.  And Beijing’s growing wealth, its Belt and Road Initiative, and its expanding ententes with Moscow, Gulf Arab capitals, and Tehran are conferring on it ever more influential politico-economic power on the entire Eurasian landmass.  Still, as Brantly argues, the main arena defining China’s identity and prospects has been and remains Pacific Asia.  Given that region’s growing weight in world affairs, what happens there will almost certainly determine much of the future world order.

In my view, which I take to be close to Brantly’s, the United States is not dealing realistically or effectively with either the rise of China or the reconfiguration of regional balances of which China’s rise is a part.  There is no American-led military cure for China’s growing politico-economic centrality in its region.  A U.S. strategy that combines protectionism with economic disengagement from the institutions of an increasingly interconnected and China-centered Pacific Asia does nothing to offset rising Chinese influence there.  Such a strategy ignores the interest of other resilient nations and political communities in the region in pursuing their own relationships with Beijing and each other, leveraging Chinese prosperity to their own, avoiding embroilment in Sino-American antagonism, and crafting a peaceful regional order in which China has an assured supportive rather than divisive role.

As Brantly observes, “the root of the [alleged] ‘China threat’ [to the United States] is not China’s enmity but its success.  If China does not contain itself by alienating its neighborhood, … [American] containment efforts motivated by hegemonic nostalgia are likely to lead to U.S. self-isolation.”  He argues, correctly in my view, that “to counter China by relying on decoupling and sanctions to preserve … diminishing [American] advantages” is more likely to harm America than to help it.  (I note that the main beneficiaries of this policy to date seem to be Mexico and Vietnam.)

China may, of course, as Brantly suggests, “contain itself.”  Overall, Beijing’s behavior seems remarkably consistent with the historical Chinese focus on assuring domestic tranquility and political stability through the management and reduction of external threats rather than power projection.  Still, as it has become more powerful, China has increasingly resorted to officious-coercive approaches to resolving disagreements with its neighbors or perceived disrespect by them.  (Interestingly, this has usually involved the informal, unannounced restriction of imports of goods and services rather than formal measures or the imposition of export controls – as has been the normal practice in the West, especially the United States.)  And China has self-destructively sought security in diminished openness to foreigners and foreign influences.

For a while, Beijing’s efforts to browbeat other countries into obeisance included so-called “wolf-warrior diplomacy” – a series of undignified temper tantrums and indignant diatribes.  (It’s arguable that, in their boorishness, the Chinese may just have been channeling the Trump Administration and its secretary of state.)  But, to its credit, Zhongnanhai seems belatedly to have noticed that efforts to cause others to lose face breed more resentment than introspection and recalcitrance than deference on their part.  In statecraft, style and tone matter.  For now, at least, Chinese appear to have rediscovered the courtly politesse that centuries of international interactions between sovereign states have shown is crucial to the effective management of foreign relations.

Still, China’s neighbors may be forgiven if they believe that China inadvertently treated them to a brief glimpse of the menacing hegemonic impulse implicit in its self-righteous self-appraisal of its innate virtue.  These neighbors fear that the now partially suspended bumptiousness of Chinese officials accurately reflected ingrained Chinese arrogance as well as great power chauvinism.  In any event, the elaborate courtesies and feigned modesty that once made Chinese culture so attractive are now much less evident to foreigners than they used to be.

How is the United States – how is the world – to deal with China?  Brantly argues that “the major challenge facing the United States is not to counter China’s centrality in Pacific Asia, but rather to understand both China and its region.”  I agree.  But the obstacles to this are growing apace with the intensified xenophobia and paranoia of the national security states emerging in both China and the United States.  China cannot be understood by attributing to it the ambitions inherent in European imperialism, an impulse to emulate America’s “Manifest Destiny” or the Monroe Doctrine’s regional sphere of influence, Germany’s and Japan’s militarism and search for Lebensraum, or the messianic ideological zeal of either the USSR or the United States.  Coping with the challenge of China demands an empirical approach rather than one based on uninvestigated presuppositions, a priori reasoning, misapplied historical analogies, and the suffocation of debate by political correctness.  But such an anti-empirical approach is precisely what we are now being offered by ambitious demagogues in our political establishment.

China is ruled by a Leninist organization that calls itself “communist.”  But it is not true, as most American politicians seem to believe (ironically, not having ever actually met one), that if you’ve seen one “communist,” you’ve seen them all.   The China Americans declare we are “competing” with and to which we are apparently implacably hostile is the China of our imaginations, not the one that we are working our way into a war with.

China has three transcendent national objectives.  All were shared by both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong.  All are now vigorously opposed by us.

One is ending the subdivision of China by civil war and American intervention, i.e. bringing Taiwan into an agreed political relationship with the China mainland, preferably through negotiations but, if necessary, through a resumption of combat in the unfinished Chinese civil war.  A second is restoring China to the wealth and global technological leadership position that it enjoyed prior to the assault on it by European and Japanese imperialism.  And the third is China overcoming its humiliation by the West by gaining accepted positions of dignity and respect in international rule-setting and enforcement bodies.

The United States now opposes all three of these imperatives of Chinese nationalism.  Our means of doing so is primarily military and sanctions based.  We are too busy preparing for war with China to consider alternatives to confrontation with it.

We now offer China no hope at all that it can achieve any of its goals except by overwhelming our opposition to them.  That’s why war looms over the Sino-American relationship.  Such a war would inevitably destroy Taiwan’s prosperity and democracy and remove it as a future model for the rest of China.  It would almost certainly destroy much of what China has accomplished economically since Deng Xiaoping set it on a course to eclectic modernization.  And it would permanently embitter interactions between China and America and stimulate an accelerated arms race and technology rivalry between us.  The result would be a loss for Beijing, Taipei, and Washington that would also destroy regional confidence in the ability of the United States to manage critical security issues in Pacific Asia.

We need to find a modus vivendi with a rising China and reinvigorated Pacific Asian region.  We will not do so if we continue to tilt at Chinese windmills rather than deal with China and its region as they are.  Brantly’s effort to reexamine and rethink both is a major step in the direction of realism and intelligent strategy.

Read the book!